Many of the Jews who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.
Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?’ Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.
… it is better for you to have one man die for the people …
On a superficial level the words of Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest, make sense. The sacrifice of just one person can be presented as justifiable when the alternative could bring about the destruction of a whole nation. But, there is another, more sinister, way of looking at this argument.
In the late eighteenth century, the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, proposed the ethical philosophy of utilitarianism. The notion upon which this philosophy was founded centred on the justification of any action that could be shown as maximizing the ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ of all affected individuals. As we take a first glance at Bentham’s hypothesis, most of us will see a major problem: the definition of ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’. This is so subjective an issue that it can easily give rise to the subjugation of the less articulate by those who can spread their message faster and to greater effect. However, despite this and other flaws in the utilitarian approach to decision making, this ethical system did not go away.
In the 1860s, the philosopher, economist and politician, John Stuart Mill, tweaked Bentham’s definition of utilitarianism. Rather than speaking of ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’, Mill spoke of the ‘good’ of the majority. In this simple linguistic shuffle of the deck, Mill was aligning himself with the reasoning of Caiaphas in today’s reading. Mill was proposing an ethical philosophy that could, if taken to its logical extreme, justify the killing of another human being. Mill’s manipulation of Bentham’s philosophical theory brought him round to Caiaphas’ way of thinking.
The essential problem with Caiaphas’ argument is that it leaves no room for the truth. Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. Jesus does preach a new message which challenges much that has been constructed for the glorification of the few. Jesus does call us all into an equal ministry of love and service. These are all truths that can challenge our notions of hierarchy and self-importance. These are truths that will lead some into preaching a different, un-Christian doctrine of ‘happiness’, ‘well-being’ and ‘good’.
Let us pray for the strength to remain true to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who brings salvation to all who remain faithful in following him.